Life and works of Sybil Wettasinghe
‘Sybil: Art of Sybil Wettasinghe,’ an exhibition at Theerta Red Dot
Gallery is a retrospective voyage for the art lovers, on the work of
artist, author and illustrator, Sybil Wettasinghe. Over her 60-year long
career, Wettasinghe’s artistic output has encapsulated a variety of
mediums ranging from book illustrations and children’s novels to
newspaper sketches and batik prints.
Wettasinghe undertook her first major artistic assignment at the age
of 15 when she illustrated the Nava Maga Standard 5 Reader, the first
book to be printed in colour in Sri Lanka.
In 1948, after completing her SSC examinations, Wettasinghe joined
the Lankadeepa as a graphic artist and proceeded to illustrate stories
for the Times, Silumina, Sarasaviya, Daily News and Janatha newspapers.
In 1952, she made her first attempt at storytelling through her juvenile
novel Kuda Hora which gained popularity overnight. Since then, this book
has captivated the imagination of several generations of Lankan children
and acquired a wide international readership upon being translated into
A prolific writer as well as an illustrator, Wettasinghe has produced
over 200 books over the course of her career.
Wettasighe’s newspaper illustrations and children’s books are
characterized primarily by their idealization of rural Sri Lanka. Mired
in folk culture, her stories frequently invoke the imagery, festivities
and rituals that form an integral part of village life.
However, Wettasinghe’s work does not overlook the culture and
lifestyles of the urban elite. On the contrary, much of her art explores
the terrain between urban/rural polarities.
In doing so, she often romanticizes the rural and caricatures the
urban. If her books Kuda Hora, Vesak Kuduwa and Magul Gedara Bath Netho
sensitively capture the intimacy of village life, its everyday rhythms,
traditions and archetypal characters, her adult novels Kusumalatha and
Rasawathi provide a satirical critique of the foibles, habits and social
graces of Colombo’s ‘high-society’ women. This tension between folk and
elite culture, village and city dwelling is one that Wettasinghe has had
to confront in her own life.
Sybil Wettasinghe’s artwork
Until the age of six, she lived in Gintota, a village close to Galle
town, and later moved to Colombo to pursue an English education.
Alienated in the unfamiliar environs of the city, Wettasinghe turned
to her art as a way of keeping alive her memories of Gintota. As she
approached adulthood, her practice of drawing evolved into a serious art
form, which continued to give her an outlet to revisit and re-create the
world of her childhood.
On July 25 Theertha Red Dot Gallery launched the exhibition ‘Sybil:
Art of Sybil Wettasinghe,’ which will be open to the public until August
12. This exhibition features selected works from Wettasinghe’s original
line drawings, newspaper illustrations and books including Kuda Hora,
Runaway Beard, Andare, Mahadenamutta, Podda Saha Poddi, Rasawathi and
Hoity the Fox.
As part of this venture to honour the lifework of this distinctive
artist, Theertha will also produce a catalog containing a biographic
sketch and a pictorial overview of Wettasinghe’s art.
The writer is an art researcher for the exhibition. She holds BA from